Sometimes “cool” music can seem a bit like vegetables: supposed to be good for you, but hard to choke down. Grizzly Bear’s last album, Yellow House, was my lima beans, but the newly released Veckatimest is my garbanzo beans, which I like infinitely more than lima beans. I am not sure why I like garbanzo beans so much more than lima beans, but I can tell you why I like the new Grizzly Bear album so much more than the last, here goes.
They took the fuzz out, for one. Yellow House sounded like Grizzly Bear got into the wrong honeycomb, i.e. the one with the swarming killer bees waiting to wreak sonic havoc. The tone of the album is too distant for the listener to achieve a meaningful connection with it. The guitar, piano, drum and percussion, and vocals are much clearer on Veckatimest, which makes listening to the album a more intimate experience. There is no curtain between the performers and the audience. It is hard to pinpoint or explain, but the last album seemed like it had been recorded in a large room and Veckatimest seems to come from a closet or, even better, a proper studio. I am impressed with the upgrade. [Side note: Yellow House actually was recorded in founder Ed Droste’s mother’s house, which is, in fact, a yellow house.]
Second, they picked up the pace. The last album was like popping a pocketful of tranquilizers and then taking small coke bumps every few minutes. There were places that drove you out of your mind, in both the good and bad ways. This album has fewer of those K-hole moments to wade through (although the song “Hold Still” is aptly-titled) and more of the straight-up euphoria. “Southern Point”, the first track on Veckatimest, shows the band at its most propulsive, alternately adding and subtracting layers and thereby building tension in the song’s narrative. They have also added more nice touches, in the form of great harmonies, backing vocals, and percussion. This effect is best realized in the set’s catchiest number, “Two Weeks”. It is built around a simple but enchanting piano line that merges with the drums’ disjointed swing and the lazy drift of the vocals to produce a blend that can only be described as pop magic to rival the melancholic majesty of Brian Wilson. It is the perfect soundtrack for a sunny day break-up. Good weather belies the pain involved, as the bright arrangement does for the song’s darker undertone, and the contrast makes for a subtle and thought-provoking track.
Lastly, while I think all of the composers and musicians picked it up a notch on Veckatimest, their drummer Chris Bear (no joke) really made strides and was featured in a more prominent role. He is not flashy, but he is constantly right there and is responsible for a few “Got day-um!” moments over the course of album.
What is the reason for this (successful) great leap forward? Chalk it up to the natural progression of a collection of good musicians. During the past year one member of the group, Daniel Rossen, released a satisfying album under a long-time side project (Department of Eagles’ In Ear Park). Some speculated it might be the end of Grizzly Bear, but it has become apparent that, far from weakening the group, the experience has only strengthened it. If that is indeed the case, Grizzly Bear’s next venture in sound will be something to look forward to.